[Math Lair] What's Math Got to Do With it? by Jo Boaler

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What's Math Got to Do With it? is a book that discusses how mathematics is taught in schools, and how it should be. It's no secret that there is concern about how mathematics is taught in schools in the United States. As mentioned in the book, an international assessment of mathematics performance ranked the U.S. 28th out of 40 countries, a statistic that is especially discouraging considering the amount of money spent on mathematics eduction in the United States, and that various statistics suggest that interest in mathematics at the post-secondary level is decreasing in the United States. This is of special concern considering that, in the modern world, the ability to reason mathematically is probably more important than ever. Boaler also notes that one of the main things that 40% of students learn about math in school is that they hate it, which is rather unfortunate given that math can be fun.

Boaler sees the same root cause behind the two problems: The fact that, all too often, students are not being engaged in mathematical problem solving, but rather sitting and listening to the teacher demonstrate methods that they don't really understand, but merely memorize long enough to recite them on tests. Unfortunately, this style of teaching doesn't really give a good view of what mathematics really is.

In the United States, there is significant debate as to whether mathematics should be taught in schools using traditional or non-traditional (or reform) approaches. While most of the "success stories" that Boaler points to in the book are non-traditional, she doesn't completely deprecate the traditional approach; she mentions that mathematics can be successfully taught in a traditional manner, giving the problem-solving and questioning approach championed by George Pólya as well as the way that students are taught mathematics in Japan as examples; however, if by "traditional" you mean "the teacher stands at the front of the class demonstrating methods... while students copy methods down in their books, then students work through sets of near-identical questions", then Boaler would definitely be against that sort of traditional teaching.

Boaler draws on her own personal experience as researcher, as educator and in other roles to paint a picture of approaches that work. The stories are particularly compelling, although it would be helpful to have more information as to whether these outcomes have been, are being, or could be replicated on a wider basis.

This book appears to aim for a general audience, although some chapters are written primarily with teachers in mind, and some others with parents primarily in mind. At under 300 pages, it's impossible for the book to cover everything and some audiences will wish that the book went into more detail in certain areas. Topics covered include the problems with much mathematics teaching today, effective classroom approaches, better approaches to standardized and other testing, grouping systems, girls and math, key strategies and ways of working, activities and advice, and making a difference through working with schools.

One area in which the book could have done a better job of is in discussing the impact of teachers. Whether or not mathematics is taught traditionally or non-traditionally, the teacher's skill at doing so is a significant factor in student success, and where non-traditional mathematics teaching has been curtailed, it's often because teachers weren't up to the task. Yet, the book doesn't include much discussion as to how teachers can improve their teaching or how better teachers could be trained in general.

Two other teeny tiny annoyances about the book: First, some of the non-content portions of the book are distracting. For example, the stock photography at the start of each chapter doesn't seem relevant or useful. Second, whoever indexed the book didn't do as good a job as I think could have been done; several keywords that strike me as being ones that people would want to look up don't appear.

Rating: 9/10